When I decided to become a writer; when I let go of complacency and welcomed the challenges; when I rolled up my sleeves and surrendered the prospect of recognition and reward; when I assumed the early mornings and late nights of work; when I sacrificed an abundant social life; when I really, truly, decided that writing was my passion, one which I would earnestly pursue for better or for worse, I stopped reading.
It wasn’t so much a deliberate choice to stop reading, but a slow crumbling and deterioration over time. It wasn’t so much a concrete factor of an overwhelmingly tight schedule or an undue compulsion to procrastinate, but a gradual recoiling from written works. When I decided to become a writer, I stopped reading because I detected silent threats in every crinkled, dog-eared page of a bestseller and each whimsical blog entry alike. Literature became a menace and journalists became my adversaries.
This progressive annihilation of a lifelong recreation began rather inconspicuously, as a silent killer sneaks up upon its victims with imperceptible symptoms before manifesting itself in the body completely. I would linger on a paragraph that spoke to me, or reread a sentence that gave pause, or grin at a clever metaphor, and then I would wonder if I could compose something that beautiful, intoxicating, or brilliant. I would think to myself, “Do I even have the ability to write something like this?”
I stopped reading because I began to doubt myself. I doubted the caliber of my creative energy. At which point, the silent killer called anxiety crept in. I felt that reading another author’s words was a waste of the precious minutes I could be using to pen my own. It was a selfish thought, but one deeply rooted in insecurity. I was insecure about my own ability to succeed, and failed to realize that my own work would ultimately suffer without connecting and engaging with the work of others.
I realize now that I had it all terribly wrong. Writing without reading is like taking an exam without reviewing the course material. It’s like claiming you’re a team’s die-hard fan without knowing any of the players. Reading is the lifeblood of writing.
I’ve learned that in order to propel yourself as a writer, you must familiarize yourself with the material. It’s not an option, it’s a necessity. You need to study the works of others- both the great, acclaimed works and the quieter, overlooked ones. Read something for the first time, and then read it again more carefully. Go through texts with a fine tooth comb and mark them up unabashedly. Highlight, underline, and scribble barely legible notes in the margins, as if it’s a study guide to the most important exam of your life. Essentially, it is. Act as a sponge and soak up the author’s diction, voice, and style. Notice sentence structure, nuances, vivid descriptions. There is incredible beauty within words if you are attune to it. And if you allow yourself to become attune to it, revel in it, and soak up all the beauty, you will thrive.
I think we, as writers, need to not only read, but read voraciously. We need to devour books, and poems, and essays with a hunger that can never quite be satisfied. I am in no way qualified to tell you what to do in order to be a great writer, but I don’t think I can be wrong in this regard. I don’t think anyone could take this advice and find it detrimental to their writing ability. So, here’s my two cents:
Determine which authors inspire you the most and assemble a list. These are the créme de la créme, the authors who you would invite to your dinner party, the ones whose descriptions can make you smell colors and feel sounds. These are the writers who you could talk about for half an hour, despite the fact that you’ve never personally met them. These authors who inspire you are so fundamentally important, because the works of these authors are the building blocks to becoming the writer you aspire to be.
I’ll never forget the morning under the flickering fluorescent lights, thirty-something students seated behind thirty-something desks, which had been haphazardly shoved into a semi-circle. My professor stood at the opening, too passionate about his subject to take notice of a student dozing off to his right. “Books eat other books,” he said. I don’t remember the examples he gave, or which books and authors we discussed. I don’t even remember which novel our class was studying at the time. But that single, simple idea stuck with me. Books eat other books.
Creative work is not without influence. Creativity is a spark ignited by a culmination of experiences, opinions, and events. Our ideas are shaped by our unique experiences, including the recorded experiences of others that we consume. Thus, writers are not the isolated archetype as largely perceived and portrayed; writers are interconnected, influencing and depending on one another everyday.
My list of writers, those who motivate me to work just a little bit harder, those who ignite the flame when the fire of creativity has died, is ever-expanding. I feel a connection with each and every one of them, even as the list inevitably expands. I find inspiration in their work, as they write in a way that I can only hope to write one day. And maybe, one day, they’ll attend my dinner party.